Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Like Working in a Refinery: Fracking’s New Chemical Hazards for Workers

Courtesy NIOSH

Sandstorm: dust rises during off-loading at drilling site

Federal workplace watchdogs are warning that the boom in “fracking” is now exposing oilfield workers to hazards they can inhale. It’s an additonal risk for roughnecks and service company crews working in an industry that already has a much-higher-than average injury rate.

A “Hazard Alert” from government agencies OSHA and NIOSH has the industry scrambling for fixes.

“We’re working really hard to help engineer-out the hazard and protect these workers,” Rick Ingram told StateImpact. Ingram works for oil giant BP, coordinating rig safety programs with government regulators.

“We’re getting the word out any way we can about this potential hazard. This hazard alert has really helped us do that, it’s helping bring attention to it,” said Ingram.

Dangerous Dust

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Rail cars bring tons of sand to Gonzales County

The Hazard Alert was for one threat in particular: silica, the chemical component in sand. Each well that’s “fracked” uses tons of sand that’s shot down the hole at high pressure, fracturing the shale rock formations thousands of feet underground. The sand particles act as tiny wedges, holding the rocks open, allowing natural gas and oil to escape.

So much sand is now being used in Gonzales County, 75 miles east of San Antonio—the heart of the mineral-rich Eagle Ford Shale—that a freight train company has built a new rail yard. On the site are enormous silos for sand operated by oilfield service companies including Halliburton. Trucks haul the sand to drill sites in Gonzales and neighboring counties. But as it’s off-loaded from those trucks, federal workplace investigators say the sand can create dangerous amounts of dust.

Over 10 Times Limit in Texas

In air samples taken at a drill site in the Eagle Ford Shale late last summer, investigators found silica dust levels exceeding government safety standards in half of the eight samples taken. In one sample, silica levels were over 10 times the safe limit which meant that even if workers wore air-purifying half-masks, they still would be in danger according to NIOSH. Similar and sometimes worse levels were found at sites in other fracking hotspots in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Arkansas. In fact, NIOSH says silica dust levels exceeded government safety standards at every fracking site they tested.

Breathing silica dust can cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease, and increases the risk of lung cancer.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Robert Emery says past drilling booms also led to rise in health hazards

“Short term exposure at a high enough level can result in permanent damage,” said Robert Emery, a chemical safety expert with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Emery points to a problem that occurred the last time there was a boom in drilling: radiation. Technicians use industrial x-ray machines to check the welds in pipes. During the boom of the 1980′s, inspectors found workers were being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from the x-rays. Emery says new regulations were put in place in Texas, resulting in almost no over-exposures today.

“That’s a great success story. But in its place now, a different hazard has come up,” said Emery.

Silica Not Only Toxic Hazard

Silica was actually just one of several fracking chemicals (silica is silicon dioxide) that NIOSH said can pose hazards at well sites. There are “biocides”like chlorine used to kill slime in hydraulic lines. There are fumes from the hydrochloric acid used to clean cement out of the lines. There’s exhaust from diesel trucks and generators.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Robert Colin in the booming Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas: "It feels like we're working in a refinery"

And there’s hydrogen sulfide gas. The heavier-than-air gas can be deadly and it’s why workers wear what look like yellow pagers.

“It’s an H2 monitor,” explained Robert Colin, an oilfield worker who paints tanks that hold crude oil.

“It’ll start beeping if the level gets to high,” Colin told StateImpact.

He wears the sensor on the chest pocket of his coveralls. Its placement is no accident.

Sensor for hydrogen sulfide gas

“It’s gotta be worn down here. Some guys wear it on their hard hat but once the fumes get up to your head, you’re gone.”

With the sensors, evacuation plans, and concern over what workers are breathing, Colin says “it feels like we’re working in a refinery.”

The pocket sensors are a way to protect workers from chemical vapors. But what about the danger from the silica dust? There are no pocket sensors for that and NIOSH says it won’t be as simple as providing respirator face masks.

“Given the magnitude of silica-containing, respirable dust exposures measured by NIOSH, personal respiratory protection alone is not sufficient to adequately protect against workplace exposures,” said the NIOSH scientists in a report.

Courtesy NIOSH

NIOSH conception of modifications to minimize dust

Instead, NIOSH and the oil and gas industry are working on modifications to the equipment that moves sand from rail cars to trucks and finally to tanks at the well site. Covering up access ports, using augers to move sand instead of conveyor belts, and something as simple as watering down roads where the fine sand has spilled might reduce the dust inhaled by workers.

NIOSH said respirators should be provided as well to workers if the modifications don’t reduce dust levels to acceptable levels. The agency is also recommending that companies do medical monitoring of workers including lung exams and chest x-rays.


  • There is an old rail yard in Elmira, New York that is now being used for Fracking materials transfers. Now the clouds of Crystaline Silica are floating over the city. My old home town is now facing :Black Lung and Silacosis just like the rig workers.

  • mamasnothappy1

    How can oil be cheaper when you add in all the medical costs related with these industries?  All the toxic waste dumps and the unknowing children that played in those places before it became a dirty little secret.  While many of these people live and die, never knowing til the very end what is killing them and lawsuits aren’t filed in many cases.  What about the families that lose everything to medical bills and losing the households’ wage earners?  The cost of children not going to college because of these bills.  Families, anguished and uncared for.  Medical bills that chase widows and families forever.  Sure, it’s easier to pay for cheaper gas and let the individuals and families absorb the costs.  Those oil corporations need those profits for their yachts, jets and private islands.  You wouldn’t want Americans to look cheap compared to the rest of the world.   

  • Dsprtt

    It’s sand people.. We have been exposed to it since time began. Next time you go to the beach be sure and wear your PPE or you may die.

    • Zumthru

      The fact that you equate the sand used in fracking and the sand a the beach shows either how little you know about the fracking industry or how willing you are to mislead the public.  In the first case, perhaps you are a truck driver hauling this white sand. In that case, your company has not told you the truth about the difference.  iIf so, I suggest you insist on the truth from your company as well as equipment that will protect your own health.  If they refuse, I urge you to find a safer job to protect yourelf.  Or perhaps you earn your money as a propaganda artist working for some oil or gas company.  In that case, I urge you rethink the consequences to your own integrity and your fellow Americans’ health and find an honest job.

    • WCGasette

      Sad. Making jokes may have worked for you in the past…maybe workers in our oil or gas patch have always used that strategy to make it all seem OK, but this stuff is going on in close proximity to our communities and inside our neighborhoods. Children are potentially being exposed to this stuff. Joking about it is not an option. This is one of the major reasons we need stronger “regulation” of the oil and gas industry.  With industry touting jobs, jobs, jobs ~ it’s a crime for this industry to get away with bashing regulation at the expense of people’s lives.

    • Alexander Wood

      Retard! I work with this shit as a fracker it’s not just sand you simpleton! Pull your head outta your ass we are the ones that have to work with this stuff! 

  • dcguest

    Dsprrt – except that you are dead wrong. Sure, people have been exposed to sand, but this is not an ordinary exposure. Tons and tons of sand being poured create the kind of dust you will never see, not even from being on the beach during a storm. A buildup of sand dust in your lungs is not a joke – believe it or not, lungs packed with sand dust stop working..

  • WCGasette

    This is a tragedy for the workers and everyone since it has been going on for some time, now. This FRAC Job was captured on video March 10, 2011 in Argyle, TX in the Barnett Shale. The worker is clearly oblivious to his need for protection.  Just a note to remember about all of this…FRAC jobs are being conducted in the midst of our neighborhoods in the Barnett Shale.


    • Alexander Wood

      I know the dangers of the silica dust but he is safe there, He looks like he is on hydration from the looks of the lease set up…He is well out of the hot zone and the wind is blowing away from him. 

  • Elizabeth Riebschlaeger

    Gonzales County is only one site for this “gathering of portable desert storms”.   Rufugio on US 77 on the coastal plains and Cotulla, just sest of IH 35, where several railroad tracks and whole trains lined up waiting to empty their cargo are visible to the traveller headed south toward Laredo are two other large operations.  These are known because they are located on well-travelled highways in the state.   We can only imagine how many others are located in areas well hidden from public eye in the wide expanse of South Texas, taking into consideration only the Eagle Ford shale counties. 

    The question remains, and grows more significant every day of this historic “rush to riches and ruin”:  “What are we willing to sacrifice in human and community values, as well as our health, clean air, safe soil in which farmers can raise our food, and clean water to drink as well as swim and shower in?”   Are they really worth it, when phasing out coal, oil and natural gas is possible as solar, wind and electric vehicles in mass production are all within our grasp? 
    It’s time for good management and intelligent choices instead of repeating more of the same old mistakes that continue to pollute our cities and now, rural communities and suburbs.

  • stevo

    I work at a sand mine in TX that makes frac sand. Its not just sand. Its silica sand. Beach sand is inert and nowhere near as bad as silica sand. I know people with silicosis and its not pretty.

  • Tony Montana

    So the PPE equipment doesn’t protect you from inhaling this?

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